Children who were born after the year 1996 don’t know a time before smartphones and the internet. The ubiquity of smartphones is so apparent with this generation of children (sometimes called Generation Z, iGen or Post-Millennials) that they consider owning a phone to be a preadolescent rite of passage and a social norm. The advent of the Internet, and the subsequent emergence social media, radically changed what it meant to learn, socialize and work. Members of this generation are distinctly different than the Millenials before them; in that, they not only use social media as an avenue for self-expression but also actively construct their learning experiences and social connections, in the form of notifications. For the purpose of this article, let’s call them the Notification Generation or NGens for short. Their careful calibration of smartphone notifications defines, at least metaphorically, how the new generation filters, selects and consumes information. This article aims to explore the behaviors, attitudes and motivations of this elusive yet powerful group of young people coming of age in the post-digital era.
Millennials and NGens
If we were to go back in time, we’d find three major revolutions that shaped human history based on the man-made tools used in that era: agricultural, industrial and the current one – digital. Though the seeds of digital revolution were sowed in the 1970s with Intel’s early microprocessor, the proliferation of digital technology gained traction only in the mid 1990s. Unlike the first two revolutions, the digital revolution influenced a global paradigm shift at much more frenzied pace. Millennials (those born after 1980) transitioned into adulthood during a time of dramatic technological change, globalization and economic disruption. Millenials are today’s adults who were once at the very cusp of these epochal events. Most millennials remember a time when they called their friends from landline phones, used dial-up internet modems and when social media didn’t even exist. The same can’t be said for the younger generation, whose childhood was documented on Facebook by their Millennial parents.
Members of the new generation are still predominantly young children, adolescents and young adults, the oldest of the cohort being 21 years old. Both Millenials and NGens build their worldviews on social media more than any other medium on the internet. However, Millennials sometimes view social media as both an obsession and intrusion that necessitates time away from their phones in the form of a “digital detox”. To NGens, smartphones and social media tools are accepted norms of everyday life and an indispensable source of information (and full blown digital detox isn’t a welcome idea) A Consumer Mobility survey report last year indicated that NGens would give up TV and gaming time to remain connected to their smartphones. To them, digital boundaries (such as no phone at the dinner table or no texting while driving) are much more reasonable. Just like their Millennial parents, NGens are equal parts aware of and wary of their dependence on technology meaning their online lives are both spontaneous and carefully curated, particularly in the form of push notifications. Perhaps the most notorious trait that NGens demonstrate is their short attention span of around 8 seconds – which befuddles parents and teachers alike. However, this development is attributed largely to information overload which has resulted in NGens’s habit of filtering out irrelevant information quickly.
In terms of career aspirations, NGens want their job to be a dream job, but they are determined to create it themselves. Entrepreneurship and startups are going to be ubiquitous when NGens grow to be adults. Additionally, research indicates that NGens are inclined to create and connect with content. They refuse to learn in a passive educational environment and choose to either resist or disengage. The catalyst of this change, of course, is attributed to digital technology and its profound implications for how young people learn, socialize and work.
Evolution of the NGen Classroom
While Millenials have been educated in traditional classrooms just as the Generation X and Baby Boomers before them, NGens are currently coming of age during a major education disruption. This disruption affects three major domains of traditional formal education: accessibility, instructional content and flexibility. All three domains were literally flipped on its head by Bill Gates’s educational poster child: Khan Academy, founded by Salman Khan in 2006. In fact, Khan Academy became synonymous with the flipped classroom’ methodology as it not only made education accessible to more young people in the world in a flexible learning environment, but also provided customisation of instructional content through Youtube videos.
The role of the Millennial educator changed as well. As the Khan Academy has demonstrated, teachers can now serve as professional coaches and content architects to help students progress in ways that they never could under most traditional models. Of course, it was established early on that online learning needed to be integrated with real face time so that teachers could make a more impactful influence on students, especially in terms of peer-learning. This is primarily because NGens need in-person social interfaces as well as technological tools to gain meaningful learning experiences.
A recent research report indicated that NGens learn best by “doing and creating”. A majority of student and teacher respondents preferred more hands-on learning experiences and evolving instructional materials to enhance creativity in the classroom. In short, NGens expect education to be more interactive, flexible, personalized and more rooted in a real-world context so that they can make a difference in the world that they live in today. Whether online or offline, Millennial teachers do not (and should not) attempt to teach NGens in a traditional sage on the stage’ lecture format but rather facilitate the use of educational technology and peer learning to become a guide on the side’.
Changing the Way We Parent, Teach and Lead NGens
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of NGens is the manner in which they interact with digital content. Their brains are wired for immediacy – when responding to social connections, making sense of visual content and receiving feedback through notifications. An average NGen can multitask across 5 devices at a time. Since NGens prefer to make quick decisions about the content they consume, they can have a tendency to take online information on face value. In Pew Research Centre survey, a majority of teachers said that their students didn’t know how to discern facts from opinions. To help them judge the credibility of online information, teachers have suggested investing class time in helping students counteract their Google reflex or quick-searching tendencies and develop stronger research skills.
One study that raised eyebrows and generated headlines was that 42 percent of this generation and 38% percent of their parent’s generation said that social media has a direct impact on how they feel about themselves. The value of a memory is attributed to the number of likes, views or comments one receives on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. Self-worth heightens or reduces based on the number of notifications one receives. While social comparisons and self-evaluations occur in real life, just as much as a virtual one, NGens will benefit from positive role modeling set by their Millennial parents and educators, as well as social-emotional reinforcements that help build self-esteem and self worth.
The common refrain is that life isn’t “life” unless it’s posted on social media, is one that is most often demonstrated by NGens and their Millennia parents. The most pressing concern about this habit is the impact it has on reputational digital footprint. According to a report by AVG found that a child’s digital footprint can begin before birth, with 30% of parents sharing ultrasound images online. Sometimes called “oversharenting”, Millennial parents often share photos and videos of children on social media, thus forming digital footprints long before NGens themselves can post content online. While it is natural to share memorable content related to one’s children and social sharing is beneficial in terms of keeping family and friends updated, AVG recommends that Millennial parents actively remain aware of creating positive digital footprints for NGens. Showcasing positive accomplishments such as academic or professional work, extracurricular or volunteer activities will help NGens build a positive, authentic digital identity that will help them connect with future colleges and workplaces.
What is wonderful to note is that, as educators and parents, Millennials are raising their NGen children differently than they were raised, from an intellectual, social, moral and ethical standpoint. Millennials strive to stay informed as much as possible. In that effort they recognize that NGen children are growing up in an era of digital technology and that their thoughtful upbringing will have profound implications for how NGens will carry the future forward.
By Ms. Kiran Pai, Director
July 15, 2018